Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner

Some highly sought after high schools won't have to enroll more special education students this fall, even as others work to boost their numbers and meet city-mandated targets.

Bard, Baruch and Eleanor Roosevelt, all in Manhattan, are among 27 high schools that are exempt from enrolling a mandated number of special needs students in their 9th grade classes this fall. City officials said the schools will be asked to meet targets in the fall of 2013.

The schools given exemptions fall into three categories: the city's 14 International schools that serve new immigrants; seven schools that require auditions; and six hyper-competitive academically screened schools. (An additional nine specialized high schools, governed by state law, are also exempt.)

Monday, 30 April 2012 15:06

Will there be pre-k Wild West waitlists?

It's going to be a Wild West waiting game for anxious prospective pre-kindergarten parents this year.

Even though acceptance letters don't go out until June 11, one Brooklyn school has already created an on-line waitlist in an effort to limit the chaos.

"We have not received any guidance from the DOE," said Charmain Derrell, parent coordinator at PS 9 in Prospect Heights. "We are organizing it ourselves so we're not swamped right before school lets out."

Siblings will get preference, and then it is first-come first-serve, Derrell said. But DOE officials warned that waitlists shouldn't be in place before parents know where their children have been accepted. They promised to clarify the process this week.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012 11:22

Let special ed kids reapply to G&T school?

District 20 leaders are bracing for a flood of parents at Wednesday's Community Education Council meeting who want the city to exempt IS 187 Christa McAuliffe from next year's special education requirements, which will force the school to admit more kids with special needs.

Other parents say allowing more special ed kids into the school isn't the problem. These parents want the city to re-open the application process to special needs students at the all-gifted Brooklyn middle school, since so few knew it was an option.

Many parents of special education students – including those with kids at IS 187 - say they had no idea that their beloved school was a possibility. While a small number of special education students do attend the school, it has not enrolled students who require special classes and more intensive services.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012 12:25

No vacation from test prep

It's spring break so why are so many kids showing up at school this week? Test prep, that's why! Schools have sidelined regular lessons and ramped up test prep this year as the stakes for improved scores on state exams continue to rise. Some schools brought in test prep companies and 25 schools have opened their doors during vacation so kids can continue to study for the exams.

On a chilly morning in April, when most schools were closed, students at PS 189 in Crown Heights filed into school to prep and practice for the tests.

Many of the parents shepherding their children through the doors said they appreciated the extra preparation.

“I think it was a good idea,” said Stacy Alexander, whose daughter is in 3rd grade. “I think they should do a lot of reading, but they also need the practice tests.”

But PS 189 students have been prepping for weeks. Instead of regular classes, children took practice tests every morning in March, teachers and parents said. Reading was Monday and Tuesday, math was Thursday and Friday, and most Wednesdays they took both. The afternoons were saved for more test prep, focusing on questions the kids got wrong.

Thursday, 29 March 2012 20:55

Parents petition against testing

A group of parents have launched a petition drive to try and reverse the increasing importance of standardized exams in city schools. In particular, they are opposed to a new law that could get teachers fired if their students' state test scores don't increase sufficiently.

"Parents want their children to have the opportunity to learn, to think critically, to engage in meaningful relationships with teachers, and to have positive school experiences," the Brooklyn-based group of parents write.

They also do not want to see a repeat of the Teacher Data Reports, which used state exams to evaluate teachers and then made the dubious ratings public.

They've gotten about 1,000 signatures by tabling outside schools, mostly in Brooklyn. Now there's an online petition you can sign if you want to join their effort.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012 21:37

Parents fight to keep out special ed kids

Some parents at a top middle school are fighting to stop special education students from “taking seats” from students whose test scores may be higher.

The parents at Brooklyn’s IS 187/Christa McAuliffe, where students must ace standardized exams to be admitted, fear that combining special and general education students in the same classrooms will reduce the level of education. “No parent is going to want their kid in those classes,” said IS 187 PTA co-vice president Virginia Cantone. “The truth of the matter is that the wide spectrum of challenges is too great for any of the children to learn, it’s too great of a difference.”

The parents have been petitioning, emailing elected officials and plan to leaflet elementary schools in southern Brooklyn’s District 20 to convince other parents to join their drive to get Christa McAuliffe exempted from the new special education requirements.

The city’s planned special education reforms mean that nearly all city schools--including most selective programs--must admit the same proportion of special education students, ending a practice in which some schools got huge numbers of special needs children and others got almost none. The specialized high schools and the five city-wide gifted and talented schools are exempt, and some Christa McAuliffe parents think they should be too. IS 187 is the most sought-after school in District 20. Students are admitted based on their state reading and math scores and their scores on a separate test known as OLSAT.

Christa McAuliffe parents don't object to special needs children who meet the school's entrance requirements--as 19 current students have done. These children are high achieving but may have other special needs such as Attention Deficit Disorder or Asperger's syndrone. Neither do the parents object to the 30 very disabled children who attend the school but who are segregated in what are called "self-contained" classrooms. The parents say they would not mind having more of these students since they “don’t mix in the same classrooms.” Rather, the parents are objecting to setting aside seats for special needs children who may not have scored as high on the exams as the rest of the students in the school.  

At most of the selective high schools, seats are being held for special education students who must meet the same criteria as the general education students (mostly by scoring a Level 3 or Level 4 on state exams). In McAuliffe’s case, there will be two pools of students created-–one for students with disabilities and one for general education students. The highest scorers in each pool will be admitted. The school has been told they need to admit about 25 special education students into next year’s 6th grade class.

“There will be children who will be crushed who could have gotten into Christa McAuliffe who will have to be in a regular general education class at another school instead,” said Cantone.

Advocates noted that many students with disabilities were also gifted.

“There is a broad spectrum with children with disabilities and many more of them should have access to quality programs,” said Maggie Moroff of Advocates for Children.  “With the appropriate support and services, there’s no reason those children shouldn’t be able to achieve at the same level as their more typically developing peers.” She expressed concern, however, that the DOE may not have made adequate plans to give disabled children the support they need in classes for the gifted.

A handful of schools, such at NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, have successfully integrated high-achieving special needs children in mainstream classes. These schools have spent years planning and refining their practice so, for example, a math whiz who is also dyslexic gets the help he needs in reading while taking advanced math classes.

The upset parents at IS 187 have gone on an email campaign, delivered petitions to local politicians and are hoping to bring like-minded parents to the next month’s Community Education Council. The District 20 CEC has not taken a position on the issue.

Education Department officials said they were working with the principal and the school community to help them understand the changes but do not plan on exempting the school.

Advocates who support the reforms said they were disturbed but not surprised by the parent response.

“This is a warning sign for us all,” said Jean Mizutani, program director at Resources for Children with Special Needs. “There will be a backlash. I think it’s going to be a challenge for everyone.”

Wednesday, 21 March 2012 16:22

Why "turnaround" won't help kids

UPDATE: On April 2, Chancellor Walcott announced a reprieve for seven of the 33 schools that were slated for closure and "turnaround." These schools will remain open: In Manhattan, Harlem Renaissance; in Brooklyn:  Brooklyn School for Global Studies, William E. Grady Career and Technical High School, Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, IS 136 Charles Dewey, Maxwell Career and Technical High School, and Cobble Hill School of American Studies. For more details, see GothamSchools.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch no doubt ruffled some highly placed feathers when she said that the mayor's attempt to remove half the teachers at Grady High School had "nothing to do with the kids."

Grady is one of 33 schools that Mayor Mike Bloomberg is trying to shut down under the federally dubbed "Turnaround model," which means, essentially, that the schools will close in June, replace half their teachers and their principals (if they've been there for more than a few years), and "re-open" in September. Like several other federally-inspired models the city could have chosen, Turnaround schools are eligible for federal funding--up to $2 million a year for three years.

Here are five reasons the city's latest attempt to close schools seems to be more about politics than school improvement:

1. It's expensive.

The several thousand teachers who will be removed from their schools will continue to collect their salaries. They won't be fired. Rather, they will be placed in the substitute pool, also called the Absent Teacher Reserve or ATR pool. The "new" schools are free to hire half their teachers from outside the Education Department. Even if only 500 new teachers are hired, that's at least an extra $32 million in salaries and benefits. 

2. The city's plans are constantly changing.

Take the case of John Dewey High School in Brooklyn. In 2010 it was designated a "transformation school" (another federal improvement model). In 2011 the school was labeled a "restart school," only to find itself tossed into the "turnaround" bucket this year. That's three models in less than three years. And last week the DOE snatched out the principal in the middle of the year. In fact, the city is now trying to "turnaround" 13 schools that it was "transforming" last year. If it's making your head spin to read this, imagine trying to teach in this situation. How does a staff develop, implement and assess an improvement plan when the floor is constantly shifting under them?

3. There's no rationale to explain why the "new" schools will be better.

There are examples where a really dysfunctional school has been closed and a better one has replaced it. In those cases, a whole new team comes in with fresh leadership, energy and a coherent vision for what the new school will be. They start small, with just a few grades, plan for months, and build a new culture and learning environment from the ground up. In the case of these 33 schools, a principal may or may not be switched out, there is no new leadership team, no real time for planning or professional development and, in some cases, not even so much as a new paint job.

4. There's no evidence that half the teachers at these schools are bad.

Sure, not all the teachers at these schools are great. And to be honest, some of the 33 schools have been struggling for years and probably need immediate and aggressive intervention. But many, such as Sheepshead Bay and FDR, have been socked with a huge influx of needy kids. They have a committed staff who mostly need more support. Places like Lehman High School have arguably been wrecked in part by bad leadership decisions made by the people at Tweed. Now the answer is to fire half the teaching staff?

5. What's really going on: a squabble between the mayor and the union.

The real deal is that the mayor is angry that the teachers union won't agree on an evaluation plan that judges teachers based on year-to-year gains on standardized tests. And the union historically has also made it difficult to get rid of subpar teachers. So the mayor is threatening to replace thousands of teachers, which will likely include some very talented and committed ones. These 33 schools are struggling and they need a targeted and carefully crafted plan to improve, not a scorched earth approach. Otherwise, it's the kids who will pay the price.

A change in special education enrollment will likely have some already overcrowded schools coping with a large influx of kindergarten students in the fall.

In past years, most special education students were placed in schools that had space or offered the kinds of classes that could serve them. This year, in an effort to allow more special education students to attend their local schools, most will be enrolled at their community school.

The problem is that some schools that had big kindergarten wait lists last year also had a very low percentage of special needs students, compared with nearby schools. That means the new plan for sending more special education children to their zoned schools could bring even more kindergarteners to the doors of packed schools this fall.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012 21:46

Get some answers at pre-k info sessions

I thought I was courting disaster when I took my four-year-old to Brooklyn's two-hour long pre-k information session Monday night after a full day at pre-school. But with the assistance of an extra large slice of pizza and a cupcake-making app, we made it through without meltdown.

There are upcoming sessions in each borough -- the next one is Thursday in Manhattan -- and you will learn more at them than you can from simply downloading the directory. Officials used a Power Point presentation in a darkened auditorium at Sunset Park High School to explain what a typical day in pre-k looks like, how to apply, and they stuck around for questions afterwards.

There was, however, some jargon about "aligning to common core standards" and other policy efforts that weren't explained in a way that was easy to understand. The Power Point presentation didn't exactly explain how pre-k was "the first step to college and career readiness," but officials were friendly, knowledgeable and more down to earth when answering specific questions. And it was a relief to hear a DOE representative tell us that "when you give children lots of time to run around and play, it helps them intellectually too."

Thursday, 23 February 2012 20:42

Why teacher ratings don't tell much

The latest serving of data-driven mania from the city Education Department will likely produce screaming headlines about the city's "worst teachers." This virtual wall of shame (and fame) will live online for years to come. But does it actually help parents to find the best schools and teachers? Not really. Here's why.

The ratings are based on a complicated formula that compares how much 4th through 8th-grade students have improved on standardized tests compared with how well they were predicted to do. The system tries to take into consideration factors like race, poverty and disabilities. Teachers are then graded on a curve. It's known as "value-added," because it tries show how much value an individual teacher has added to a student's test scores.

Here are our top five reasons they won't help and why you won't be seeing them on Insideschools. Please add your own, or tell us why you think they will be useful.

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